Brands That Make Heroes Out of Customers

by David Heitman

One of the tenets of branding is the principle of self-identification.

The idea that I feel differently about myself because I use/drive/shop/smoke/drink/ this brand’s offering over another’s.

I think most folks will tell you they feel better about shopping at Target than Walmart. There are Apple people out there, but I have yet to find anyone on planet Earth who says he is a huge Dell or Intel fan. People self-identify with their Toyota Prius hybrids; but you’d be hard pressed to find a Chevy Impala fanatic.

Perfume, cologne, apparel and automobile brands are firmly rooted in the self-identification business. Brands that can’t deliver on that dynamic don’t survive. Interestingly, even small, local brands can provide that same type of self-identification. In Boulder, there is a decades-old hardware store called McGuckin Hardware, that, despite the encroachment of a Home Depot less than a mile away, still continues to thrive on its superior service, and knowledgeable old guys in green vests who, Nordstrom-like, walk you to your destination instead of just telling you what aisle you need. Add to that a most eclectic product line and history with the community, and you have a ritual form of entertainment just to shop there. It’s even listed in the New York Times Travel Guide for Boulder. So I know A LOT of McGuckin’s fans. I couldn’t find a Home Depot fan to save my life.

But there are some companies whose brands transcend even this self-identification to actually make us, the consumers, feel like the heroes.

In other words, these brands self-identify with us!

Take for example Southwest Airlines. Their watch-out-for-the-litle-guy attitude and “Bags Fly Free” approach is one that exalts the consumer. Interestingly, this approach is seen in upscale brands too. The aforementioned Nordstom is a great example. The whole shopping experience revolves around you. When you conclude a transaction, you will never have your purchase shoved over a counter. The sales associate walks out from behind the counter and hands you your package. A small detail that says a lot about who is really at the center of the brand.

Such brands operate out of one powerful premise: You, the customer, deserve something better.

We recently structured an entire re-branding effort for our client, NationAir Aviation Insurance of Chicago, based on this approach. The entire campaign came down to two simple words: Discover Better. It is a message that seeks to raise the bar for the entire aviation insurance industry. It provokes competitors to step up their game, and encourages insurance buyers to raise their expectations of what good service really means. This re-branding flowed authentically and passionately from NationAir’s president, Jeff Bauer, over his incredulity that so many insurance buyers were willing to settle for such low standards from his competitors. For service-driven companies like NationAir, the customer is the clearly the hero.

We ran a similar campaign for a luxury kitchen remodeling company, Kitchens at the Denver, with the theme “Remodel your Expectations”.

Perhaps nothing exemplifies this philosophy of branding like the “Lambeau Leap.” This is the winsome, exuberant phenomenon originated by the Green Bay Packers. When one of their players scores a touchdown, they leap into the highly accessible stands and get a mega-hug from the fans. This makes the fans part of the game, makes them co-heroes with the Packers, the team in NFL with the smallest market and yet one of the largest fan bases. Any company that fails to engender such Lambeau Leap moments with their customers probably isn’t getting any passionate referrals from them.

Brands that make heroes out of customers have a distinct advantage in good economic times and bad, enjoying powerful, viral endorsements.

And they usually end up spending less on marketing.